Last fall, the U.S. Air Force simulated a conflict set more than a decade in the future that began with a Chinese biological-weapon attack that swept through U.S. bases and warships in the Indo-Pacific region. Then a major Chinese military exercise was used as cover for the deployment of a massive invasion force. The simulation culminated with Chinese missile strikes raining down on U.S. bases and warships in the region, and a lightning air and amphibious assault on the island of Taiwan.
The highly classified war game, which has not been previously made public, took place less than a year after the coronavirus, reportedly originating in a Chinese market, spread to the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, taking one of the U.S. Navy’s most significant assets out of commission.
Then in September in the midst of the war game, actual Chinese combat aircraft intentionally flew over the rarely crossed median line in the Taiwan Strait in the direction of Taipei an unprecedented 40 times and conducted simulated attacks on the island that Taiwan’s premier called “disturbing.” Amid those provocations, China’s air force released a video showing a bomber capable of carrying nuclear weapons carrying out a simulated attack on Andersen Air Force Base on the U.S. Pacific island of Guam. The title of the Hollywood-like propaganda video was “The god of war H-6K [bomber] goes on the attack!”
In case the new U.S. administration failed to get the intended message behind all that provocative military activity, four days after President Biden took office, a large force of Chinese bombers and fighters flew past Taiwan and launched simulated missile attacks on the USS Roosevelt carrier strike group as it was sailing in international waters in the South China Sea.
Little wonder that many foreign affairs and national security experts believe the global pandemic has accelerated trends that were already pushing the United States and China toward a potential confrontation as the world’s leading status quo and rising power, respectively. This month the Council on Foreign Relations released a special report, “The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy to Prevent War,” which concluded that Taiwan “is becoming the most dangerous flash point in the world for a possible war” between the United States and China. In Senate testimony on Tuesday, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Phil Davidson, warned that he believes China might try and annex Taiwan “in this decade, in fact within the next six years.”
Meanwhile, a leading Chinese think tank recently described tensions in U.S.-China relations as the worst since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and it advised Communist Party leaders to prepare for war with the United States.
What many Americans don’t realize is that years of classified Pentagon war games strongly suggest that the U.S. military would lose that war.
“More than a decade ago, our war games indicated that the Chinese were doing a good job of investing in military capabilities that would make our preferred model of expeditionary warfare, where we push forces forward and operate out of relatively safe bases and sanctuaries, increasingly difficult,” Air Force Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, told Yahoo News in an exclusive interview. By 2018, the People’s Liberation Army had fielded many of those forces in large numbers, to include massive arsenals of precision-guided surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles, a space-based constellation of navigation and targeting satellites and the largest navy in the world.
“At that point the trend in our war games was not just that we were losing, but we were losing faster,” Hinote said. “After the 2018 war game I distinctly remember one of our gurus of war gaming standing in front of the Air Force secretary and chief of staff, and telling them that we should never play this war game scenario [of a Chinese attack on Taiwan] again, because we know what is going to happen. The definitive answer if the U.S. military doesn’t change course is that we’re going to lose fast. In that case, an American president would likely be presented with almost a fait accompli.”
With Beijing continuing to tighten an iron grip on Hong Kong, engaging in deadly skirmishes with India along their shared border and routinely bullying its smaller neighbors in the South China Sea, the Biden administration recently announced a new Pentagon task force to review U.S. defense policy toward China, to be headed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Inevitably, the deteriorating security of Taiwan will be a major focus of the new task force. “By the way, three of China’s standing war plans are built around a Taiwan scenario,” Hinote said. “They’re planning for this. Taiwan is what they think about all the time.”
In the early 2000s, China experts and military analysts at the RAND Corporation were given a trove of classified U.S. intelligence on Beijing’s military plans and weapons programs, and were asked to war-game a confrontation 10 years into the future. China was in the midst of an unprecedented economic growth spurt that saw its GDP increase annually by double digits, with commensurate steep increases in its defense spending. Equally worrisome, the PLA had clearly studied U.S. military operations over the course of two wars against Iraq. Both operations relied on a methodical, months-long buildup of forces to uncontested bases in the region, followed by U.S. aircraft dominating the skies and then carrying out devastating attacks on the enemy’s command-and-control systems.
China’s answer was a well-funded strategy that the Pentagon refers to as “anti-access, area denial” (A2/AD), meaning it would prevent an adversary like the U.S. from being able to carry out the sort of significant military buildup it carried during the two Iraq wars. The PLA’s military plans rely on space-based and airborne surveillance and reconnaissance platforms; massive precision-guided missile arsenals; submarines; militarized man-made islands in the South China Sea; and a host of conventional air and naval forces to hold U.S. and allied bases, ports and warships in the region at risk. Because it lies only 90 miles from Taiwan, China needs only to hold U.S. forces at bay for a matter of weeks to achieve its strategic objective of capturing Taiwan.
“Whenever we war-gamed a Taiwan scenario over the years, our Blue Team routinely got its ass handed to it, because in that scenario time is a precious commodity and it plays to China’s strength in terms of proximity and capabilities,” said David Ochmanek, a senior RAND Corporation analyst and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development. “That kind of lopsided defeat is a visceral experience for U.S. officers on the Blue Team, and as such the war games have been a great consciousness-raising device. But the U.S. military is still not keeping pace with Chinese advances. For that reason, I don’t think we’re much better off than a decade ago when we started taking this challenge more seriously.”
Part of the problem is that China advanced its A2/AD strategy while the Pentagon was largely distracted fighting counterterrorism and counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for two decades. Beijing is also laser-focused on Taiwan and regional hegemony, while the U.S. military must project power and prepare for potential conflict scenarios all around the globe, giving the Pentagon what Ochmanek calls an “attention deficit disorder.” Finally, there is the complacency of the perennial winner that makes it hard for senior U.S. military officers to believe that another nation would dare to take them on.
“My response is that China’s growing military confidence is manifesting itself in an increasingly belligerent approach to its neighbors, the growing frequency of the PLA’s violation of the airspace of Taiwan and Japan, and the bullying of other neighbors in the South China Sea,” said Ochmanek. “Under Xi Jinping there has been a dramatic increase in such provocations compared to a decade ago, and I think it’s grounded in his belief that militarily, China is strong enough now to credibly challenge us.”
By 2017 the Pentagon, led by then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, started to take notice.
“When we were developing the National Defense Strategy in 2017, the trend lines looked very bad vis-à-vis China, and got a lot worse as you projected into the future,” said Elbridge Colby, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development. “Yet despite that fact there were, and I think still are, a lot of people who resisted the idea that war with China is even possible, let alone losable. That’s why both strategic level and more operational war games were so important. They help show how these things are possible — but also how we can redress the problem.”
In 2018 the Defense Department issued a seminal National Defense Strategy identifying great-power competition with China and Russia, and not terrorism, as the primary challenge to the U.S. After the lopsided Blue Team defeat in the Air Force’s annual war game in 2018, senior officers and defense officials began giving a classified “Overmatch Brief” to select members of Congress.
In the most recent war game, the Pentagon tested the impact of potential capabilities and military concepts that are still on the drawing board in many cases. The Blue Team, which represented U.S. forces, adopted a more defensive and dispersed posture less reliant on large, vulnerable bases, ports and aircraft carriers in a conflict with the Red Team, which represented China.
The strategy strongly favored large numbers of long-range, mobile strike systems, to include anti-ship cruise missile batteries, mobile rocket artillery systems, unmanned mini-submarines, mines and robust surface-to-air missile batteries for air defense. A premium was put on surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities for both early warning and accurate intelligence to enable quicker decisions by U.S. policymakers, and a more capable command-and-control system to coordinate the actions of more dispersed forces.
“We created a force that had resiliency at its core, and the Red Team looked at that force and knew that it would take a tremendous amount of firepower to knock it out,” said Hinote. The biggest insight of the war game, he said, was revealed when he talked afterward with the Red Team leader, who played the role of the PLA’s top general.
“The Red Team leader is the most experienced and aggressive officer in these war games across the Defense Department, and when he initially looked at the resiliency of our defensive posture both in Taiwan and the region, he said, ‘No, I’m not going to attack,’” recalled Hinote. “If we can design a force that creates that level of uncertainty and causes Chinese leaders to question whether they can accomplish their goals militarily, I think that’s what deterrence looks like in the future.”
Despite loud alarms raised by the war games, the Pentagon has been slow to adjust its long-term spending plans or to invest in the kinds of military capabilities necessary to defend Taiwan or contested island chains in the South China Sea. Instead, older weapons systems like massive warships, short-range tactical fighter aircraft and heavy tank battalions continue to enjoy support from loyal constituencies both inside the Pentagon and in Congress. What’s needed, experts say, are bolder actions like the Marine Corps’ recent decision to completely divest itself of tanks and heavy armor by 2030 in order to invest in anti-ship missiles and mobile strike teams optimized for a conflict with China.
On a sober note, Hinote pointed out that the Blue Team force posture tested in the recent war game is still not the one reflected in current Defense Department spending plans. “We’re beginning to understand what kind of U.S. military force it’s going to take to achieve the National Defense Strategy’s goals,” he said. “But that’s not the force we’re planning and building today.”